6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time

When certain disasters hit, the media will talk about nothing else for days, because these are common anxieties. We're all secretly afraid that our plane will be hijacked by a school shooter and run into a hurricane and crash into a Zika-infected cruise ship. Don't lie. Yes you are.

However, we shouldn't fear these relatively rare occurrences ... when there are even worse types of catastrophes happening every day that no one talks about. For example ...

Pilot Suicide Crashes Are Now A Bigger Problem Than Hijackings

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
Sebastien Mortier/Wiki Commons

What You're Scared Of:

Terrorists hijacking your plane.

What You Should Be Scared Of:

Your pilot hijacking your plane.

The phrase "pilot suicide" sounds sad but not particularly alarming, until you realize it means they're suiciding you (and everyone else in the plane) at the same time. And it's happening more and more often. The first officer of Germanwings Flight 9525 was upset over a doctor's diagnosis, the first officer of EgyptAir 990 was upset over sexual assault allegations, and the captain of SilkAir Flight 185 was apparently upset over stock market losses. All three waited until their co-pilots had to use the John before simply flying their planes into the fucking ground.

John Mottern/AFP/Getty Images

Pictured: America's deadliest bathroom break.

And those weren't even the smart ones. We're not talking about the ten pilots who have hijacked their own planes for asylum -- we're talking about the evil assholes who tried to construct intricate plans to crash their planes in ways that couldn't be solved, guaranteeing a hefty life insurance payout. How many got away with this is unclear (and we'll ignore the implications this has for MH370), but the ones who failed are essentially cheesy action movie villains. Take, for example, FedEx flight engineer and martial arts expert Auburn Calloway, who tried to ambush his co-pilots with melee weapons, resulting in an insane anti-gravity fight straight out of Inception.

Federal Aviation Administration

Or the worst Castaway reboot imaginable.

But hey, at least that was a cargo plane, and ultimately, no one was killed. The same can't be said for the time the pilot of Japan Airlines Flight 350 tried to crash his plane in 1982 and make it look like an accident. His co-pilot and flight engineer him fought for control, but the plane went down in Tokyo Bay, killing 24 of the 174 people onboard. Unfortunately, the pilot was one of the survivors. He disguised himself as a passenger and escaped, but was quickly apprehended and carted off to a mental hospital.

Meanwhile, non-pilot hijackings are disappearing. Zero American commercial airplanes have been hijacked since 2002, and back in the day, we used to get dozens of them every year. But our safety system is a tradeoff; those same reinforced cockpit doors that make it impossible for terrorists to hijack your plane also make it impossible to stop the pilot if he decides to do it while his co-pilot is taking a leak. The solution is clear: Make all pilots wear adult diapers.

Arson Attacks Tend To Be Much Worse Than Mass Shootings

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time

What You're Scared Of:

Someone shooting up the building you're in.

What You Should Be Scared Of:

Someone burning down the building you're in.

This year's nightclub massacre in Orlando was the worst mass shooting in American history, with 49 victims ... But as long as we're keeping track of really depressing records, we can't say it's the worst mass murder in an American nightclub. It's not even the third-worst. There's the 1980 Happy Land fire in NYC (87 deaths), the 1986 Dupont Plaza Hotel fire in Puerto Rico (98 deaths), and the 1944 Hartford circus fire in Connecticut (freaking 167). All of those were definitely-to-most-likely intentional, but you may have noticed another recurring element in them: the word "fire."

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
Connecticut State Library

This being 1944, a burning tent still seemed like a pleasant diversion compared to Europe.

Not only did the shitheads behind those events kill more people than if they'd started shooting a gun, but it's also more common for arsonists to get away with it. This isn't only in America, either. The worst mass murders in both Sweden and Norway were arson attacks on a nightclub and a ferry (respectively, not a nightclub/ferry), but only the nightclub one was solved. That's right; the still-unsolved Norway ferry arson we recently told you about was even worse than the country's 2011 terror attack, which was the worst mass shooting in world history (159 vs. 77 victims).


Considering Norway sentenced the gunman to 21 years, whoever's behind this could get, like, 24 and a half.

Meanwhile, the most infamous terrorist attacks those wacky North Koreans have carried out against their Southern neighbors are the Blue House commando raid and the bombing of KAL Flight 858 -- and yet those two tragedies put together aren't as bad as the time a truck driver chucked a milk carton full of gasoline in a subway and killed almost 200 people.

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time

Seth Rogen should have made a movie about him. Or, well, no one.

This even holds true in the world's most disgustingly peaceful countries. Japan's only major terrorist attack since World War II was that time cultists released sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway, but that was nowhere near as bad as the unsolved 2001 Myojo 56 nightclub firebombing. Australia has had notably few terrorist events and zero mass shootings since 9/11 ... but they've had three arson attacks which killed at least 10 people. But nobody freaks out about it as much (or loudly calls for prevention), because there's no political hot-button issue there.

Accidental Fertilizer Explosions Keep Flattening Big Chunks Of Cities

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What You're Scared Of:

Terrorist bombings. Which, if our math is correct, have killed 345 people in the US since 1900.

What You Should Be Scared Of:

Fertilizer blowing up accidentally. One incident in Texas alone killed 581 people. And remember that doomsday-sized explosion in China last year?

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
via YouTube

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
via YouTube

Or if you're in China, can you look out the window and see if it's still going?

That happened because of the negligent storage of ammonium nitrate, one of the world's most popular plant fertilizers, which also happens to be a highly explosive chemical. And it goes off accidentally more often than Donald Trump without a teleprompter. In fact, it might be the only old-timey industrial accident that never stopped happening. Between the 1916 "Great Explosion" (not so great for the 115 people who ended up in a mass grave) and 1942, ammonium nitrate flattened buildings in England, New Jersey, Germany, Belgium, and Germany again. More often than not, the reason for these explosions was "someone being a dumbass."

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
Popular Mechanics

"OK, so now I know not to do that."

As other popular causes of the death like "tuberculosis" or "Nazis" fell by the wayside, fertilizer explosions kept going strong. In 1947, a fire broke out in a French ship being loaded with ammonium nitrate in Texas City, and the captain tried to save the cargo by pumping the ship with steam -- which only made the chemicals more volatile. The eventual mega-explosion knocked two different airplanes right out of the goddamn sky. People 10 miles away fell off their asses. Dozens of buildings and some nearby ships burst into flames, and then raged out of control for days, because the initial blast more or less killed the entire Texas City Fire Department.

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
Keystone/Getty Images

A few months later, another ship in the French port of Brest caught fire with ammonium nitrate inside. What did the captain do? Pump it full of steam.

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time

"While you do that, I'm gonna sit down and read my backlog of newspapers from Amer-- OH, SHIT."

In the last 50 years, Oregon, Kansas City, Iowa, Romania, Mexico, North Korea, France again, China again, Australia, and more have all suffered apocalyptic ammonium nitrate explosions. It isn't always ports that blow up -- many involved fertilizer trucks, trains, or entire factories going kaboom. In 2013, West, Texas suddenly looked like Michael Bay had filmed a J. Robert Oppenheimer biopic, thanks to a fertilizer factory with less-than-ideal storage practices.

An ensuing investigation found that ammonium nitrate is stored in 1,351 facilities across the U.S., many near populated areas, because there's no regulation stopping that from happening. So if your city ever disappears into a giant mushroom cloud, don't worry. It was probably not World War III or terrorists; just ineptly handled plant food.

Car Ferries Have A Nasty Tendency To Flip Over Without Warning

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What You're Scared Of:

Cruise ships slowly sinking. Thanks to highly publicized disasters like the cruise that filled up with shit or the one that crashed because the cowardly captain was trying to impress his girlfriend, it sure feels like we'll get a Titanic sequel any day now.

What You Should Be Scared Of:

Car ferries instantly flipping over. It can happen astonishingly fast. The beast below tipped over in 90 seconds, killing 193 people.


Heartbreaking photo of the ferry's young children trying to wake it up.

Why? Because someone left the deck door open, letting water come in -- and it only takes one inch to fuck everything up (which, if we recall correctly, is what she said). These roll-on / roll-off ferries are half parking lot, half passenger ship, which is incredibly convenient to those of us who don't have amphibious cars, but also incredibly dangerous. The car decks are big, open areas in the middle of a ship, so if water gets in, it can slosh around, build up momentum, and tip the whole thing. In 2006, 1,000 people died off Egypt when an engine fire broke out in a car ferry. Oh, the fire didn't kill anyone. The water used by the firefighters did, once it got into the car deck.

FREE SURFACE EFFECT Centre of gravity

That's one way to put out the fire, we guess.

Another ferry, the MS Estonia, capsized in a storm in 1994 because water got in the car deck, killing 852. Not that these things can't flip over for other reasons, like being overloaded or setting the ballast wrong -- as demonstrated by the Cougar Ace, the MV Sewol, and the Jan Heweliusz (three different times). Hell, the second-worst peacetime maritime disaster ever involved the MV Le Joola, an overloaded car ferry. Of the nearly 2,000 passengers, freaking 64 survived.

By comparison, if we're excluding the Philippine maritime industry (they are to ships what Malaysia is to airplanes), modern cruise ship disasters don't really happen on this planet. Yes, Captain Fuckwit crashed that Italian ship and killed 32 people, but 99.25 percent of those onboard survived. Another cruise sank off Greece in 2007, but 1,193 of the 1,195 onboard made it out ... and that's basically it for fatal sinkings. When your cruise capsizes or starts burning, you end up staring at penguins for hours or singing "My Heart Will Go On" with other passengers. When your car ferry does, you don't even have time for the flute intro.

Runaway Trains Are Considerably More Destructive Than Simple Derailments

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
Win McNamee/Getty Images

What You're Scared Of:

Your train derailing, leading to a spectacular movie-like crash, with explosions and stuff.

Unless you've been framed for murdering your wife, in which case derailments are awesome.

What You Should Be Scared Of:

No one driving your train.

Most derailments are more of a nuisance than a mortal threat. Amtrak alone has had approximately 600 derailments since 2000, but next to none were deadly.

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
Bdmccray at English Wikipedia

"Goddammit, Steve. Just pop it back on and get going."

If a train fatally crashes in North America, it's likely that no one was driving it. Sure, accidents have been caused by texting, distracting radio chatter, and the conductors being really, really high. But we're talking literally no one being in control. The most common reason for that is ... the entire train crew falling asleep, which is responsible for 29 percent of train collisions.

Sleep deprivation is a major safety issue with train operators. Something you own has almost definitely been on a train where the entire crew fell asleep and no one fucking noticed. That exact thing led to the Hinton rail disaster, a freight train collision in Michigan, a fatal New York commuter crash in 2013, and a miraculously nonfatal subway crash in Detroit, wherein a train tried to climb an escalator at Chicago O'Hare Airport.

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
Milka Overton/Chicago Tribune

"Ma'am, if you wanna bring that upstairs, you're gonna have to use the elevator."

Oh, and that's only sleep issues. Brakes can also fail, which led to the infamous 1988 Gare De Lyon Disaster in Paris and a freight train crash in San Bernardino which destroyed 11 houses. The conductors might as well have been sleeping then, because there was nothing they could do.

And yes, sometimes there are explosions ... especially when trainloads of hazardous material simply roll off without conductors. One such case in Ohio, where they managed to chase down a runaway train with another train, was made into the movie Unstoppable, but not all those situations end so happily. In 2013, a massive runaway trainload of flammable material turned the entire town of Lac Megantic, Quebec into Lucifer's vacation home.

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
David Charron/Maclean's

"People are so nice here! Did you know I don't even lock my door?" -- Satan, Prince of Darkness

"Controlled Flight Into Terrain" Is A Lot Scarier Than Your Plane Falling Apart

Woldwide Seninc Synchtonizing th
National Transportation Safety Board

What You're Scared Of:

Picture being in an airplane disaster. Did you imagine your plane spinning out of control and falling to the ground while wings, walls, roofs, and some passengers flew off in midair? Yeah, we watched Fight Club and Lost too.

What You Should Be Scared Of:

Dying instantly because your 100-percent conscious and alert pilot accidentally flew your 100-percent functional airplane into a mountain without even the slightest bit of warning to you.

Look, the chances of you dying in a plane crash are tiny, but if that somehow happens, you were most likely killed by CFIT (short for "Controlled Flight Into Terrain"). What's CFIT? Well, planes fly pretty fucking fast, so unlucky pilots who get lost or distracted can simply plow straight into a cliff like rocket-propelled lemmings. They just ... don't realize the mountain or ground or whatever is in front of them until seconds before their deaths.

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
NYC Aviation

This was a plane.

CFIT has been responsible for some jaw-droppingly stupid accidents. A jumbo jet crashed in the Florida Everglades because all four pilots got distracted by a light bulb. A 737 went down in Northern Canada because the pilots forgot to set their compass to True North instead of Magnetic North. It's the sort of silly misunderstandings that would gain you a new nickname at the office if you weren't dead.

Most passenger jets crash due to CFIT, but it's an even more common problem in the military. Just between 1980 and 1994, the U.S. Air Force lost 229 frigging airplanes to CFIT. That's more than twice what we lost in combat in Vietnam and the Gulf War combined.

6 Massive Catastrophes You Didn’t Know Happen All The Time
U.S. Air Force

Top Gun would have been more realistic if Maverick's dad had crashed into a hill due to a paperwork error.

Some of the 30,000 (and counting) victims of CFIT include half the Polish government, Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, musician Stevie Ray Vaugh and Reba McEntire's band, as well as (at least officially) a surprising number of Earth's presidents, prime ministers, and even a UN Secretary general. Remember that horrifying plane crash in the Andes where all the passengers had to eat each other? They had CFIT to thank for that.

By comparison, crazed, chaotic midair breakups are really rare. The last time one of those happened in America was in 2005 ... with a flying boat manufactured in 1947. Oh, and airplanes can absolutely suffer damage that would be super fatal in any movie and still land. We've told you a few stories of planes landing without full wings, but what about roofs or walls? Those definitely help, but Aloha Airlines Flight 243 and United Flight 811 proved they're not, like, essential.

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Ken Sakamoto/Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Plane sides are just another con to inflate ticket prices, man.

Zachary Frey is a Cornell University sophomore who was too busy when he turned in this article to think up a better "about the author." His articles are awesome anyway, and you can read the 10 most recent ones here.

For more frightening things that are likely to happen to us, check out 6 Statistically Full Of S#!t Dangers The Media Loves To Hype and The 5 Most Humiliating Ways the Wilderness Can Kill You.

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